Our Fall 2020 Innovation Catalysts Grant Recipients

September 24, 2020 | 2:33 pm

The Jacobs Institute Innovation Catalysts is a grant program that helps Berkeley’s student innovators unlock potential in their projects. With this fall’s cohort included, we are thrilled to announce that the Innovation Catalysts grant program has now funded more than 50 projects since its genesis.

This fall, ten diverse and creative projects were selected by the Jacobs student advisory board and leadership team to be a part of the grant program. Each of the projects proposes an innovative solution to an environmental or social challenge; several address issues that have been particularly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the semester, grant winners will work on their projects with the support of funding and mentorship from Jacobs Hall and the CITRIS Invention Lab. While our building remains closed for public access, students will still have access to the Makerspace’s resources, guided through remote fabrication services. We will also shift all events to virtual presentations, culminating with our Fall Design Showcase in December.

Read more below about the fall 2020 cohort.


Ignite grants help push projects to the next stage, by providing support for students to refine existing prototypes with demonstrated potential for impact. Three Ignite projects will draw upon funding (up to $2000) and other grant resources to develop their projects further.


Leyla Kabuli and Ryan Mei

In the developing world, lack of healthcare infrastructure and personnel results in inadequate access to pathology services. Consequently, many life-threatening diseases that are typically diagnosed in cytology-based screening programs, such as cervical cancer and malaria, remain undiagnosed even in high-risk populations.

Kabuli and Mei’s goal is to establish an accessible, affordable, and self-contained pathology tool that can autonomously generate blood cell counts, classify cervical smears, and more. Scoplet is a 3D printed computational microscope that can produce high-resolution 3D images without mechanical scanning. Scoplet can synthesize a wide range of standard biological contrast imaging modalities without using stains and chemicals, making image sampling quicker and less costly and replacing labor-intensive optical microscopy tasks normally performed by a pathologist.

Omni Mouse

Dylan Chow and Naren Yenuganti

Omni Mouse is a tongue-operated computer mouse, designed for individuals who have difficulty moving their hands due to disabilities. While there is no getting around needing to use a computer in our modern world, there are more than 20 million people globally who experience computer access issues due to mobility challenges. Omni Mouse provides an alternate way of interacting with the computer, by using the tongue to control a device, as opposed to eye-tracking and the “sip & puff” technology currently predominant on the market. These two options often fail their users; eye-tracking can cause fatigue and vertigo with prolonged use, as well as not benefitting those with limited eye function. “Sip & puff” joysticks work by the user blowing through a straw–a challenging and exhausting movement that can cause feelings of isolation when used in public spaces.

Since tongues are not damaged in spinal cord injuries and are less prone to fatigue than the eyes, neck, and head, Chow and Yenuganti believe that the Omni Mouse is a more viable option for those living with disabilities. The device fits inside the mouth like a retainer, making it discreet, and the tongue moves a micro joystick, which then communicates wirelessly with a computer. They hope that the device may also be used as a sensor for other purposes as well, such as controlling a wheelchair. 


Braeden Swidenbank, with collaborator Alex Le-tu

Last-mile delivery, typically accomplished with diesel vans, contributes billions of gallons of burned fuel into the environment annually. With the explosion of eCommerce in recent years, the number of commercial trucks on the road is set to increase dramatically. Reducing the carbon impact of last-mile delivery is one big step in addressing climate change. By utilizing an efficient VTOL (verticle take-off and landing) design, intelligent routing and object avoidance software, and a humanless launch system, PacDrone will enable fast, safe, and environmentally friendly package delivery. Additionally, within-the-hour delivery over rural and urban areas will revolutionize humanitarian aid, medicine, and commercial goods disbursement. 

The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has further highlighted the need for contactless and rapid delivery of PPE and Covid-19 testing equipment. Utilizing PacDrone to quickly deliver medicine and tests to patients’ homes will help reduce transmissions and save lives. PacDrone was initiated in 2018, when the team began developing a VTOL package delivery drone that could carry more, further distances than any other UAVs of its size. With the help of research conducted with a Spark Grant in the spring of 2019, the design and a physical prototype is now ready, and the team plans to use their Ignite grant to refine the aerodynamics, optimize the electronics, and develop object avoidance software. 


Spark grants provide up to $500, as well as other resources, for early-stage projects or experimental concepts. This semester saw more Spark recipients than Ignite, with seven projects receiving funding for the fall through the Innovation Catalysts program.


Goar Ayrapetyan, Radhika Bhalerao, James Lo, and Weiyu Wu

Traditional laparoscopic and robotic surgery both have their drawbacks in either the range of motion or cost. In order to most benefit patients from various backgrounds, surgeons need to have tools that not only perform the task, but also are easy-to-use and affordable. The LapraHand team’s goal is to design a laparoscopic electrocautery device with increased functionality, such as articulation, that will provide the desired range of motion for surgeons without compromising precision and clinical outcome for their patients.

Aeolus Water System

Ivan Yan, with collaborator Joshua Davenport

Named after the Greek God of the Winds, the Aeolus Water System is an atmospheric water harvester that uses moisture-collecting desiccants to produce a robust supply of clean drinking water in even the most arid conditions. This project was created in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and aims to provide a simple, affordable, and effective solution to those faced with extreme water scarcity. The Aeolus Water system uses moisture-collecting desiccants to extract moisture from the air. The project also seeks to address a key gap between the research and development of water treatment technologies and their implementation in the field, by targeting commercially available and readily scalable materials. The Aeolus Water System is a joint collaborative effort between two Environmental Engineering students from UC Berkeley (Yan) and Stanford University (Davenport).

USPS Redux: Postal Service and Accessibility

Alyssa Plese 

The United States Postal Service is America’s most cherished public service. However, in the face of recent budget constraints, the USPS will require tremendous public support in order to persist in its current form. This design project explores the accessibility of mail services by removing as much physical and financial friction as possible from the process of sending letters. Four simple postcard dispensers will be fabricated and staged alongside public mailboxes in Berkeley. The dispensers invite residents to engage with the USPS by locating all the necessary resources for writing and mailing a postcard in a single physical location, and free of cost. After a one month period, the dispensers will be removed from the street and refashioned into a public bench, avoiding waste by giving the materials a second life within the domain of public service. Plese’s goal is that the designs of both the dispenser and the bench offer Berkeley residents a chance to rediscover the power of letter writing, and also to reflect, in this small way, on what it means for a public institution to be at once the most beloved, and also the most taken for granted. 

Living Gifts

Katherine Song, Cici Wei, and Michelle Gantos

Maintaining a sense of connectedness to one’s loved ones is a challenge that is especially relevant to most people in the world today. Commercially available “social technologies” remain largely in a distinctly digital realm, limiting the portal for interactions to traditional screens and speakers. Additionally, exchanges via existing technologies often come with the expectations of timely replies, sometimes resulting in unintended awkward situations. The Living Gifts team hopes to enable different ways to support friendship with technologically-enhanced physical objects that do not rely on a send-acknowledge message model. Living Gifts are tangible, exchangeable objects whose surfaces become collaborative canvases for a pair of close individuals to co-design and update over time. While not a replacement for face-to-face interaction or existing forms of telecommunication, they envision that Living Gifts can supplement a long-distance relationship. Using and displaying a Living Gift in one’s home would require and build trust between individuals to appropriately and tastefully decorate each other’s objects, creating a new opportunity for intimacy among distant loved ones.

The Maker Machine

Miyuki Weldon

Lack of access to technology is leaving remote learners behind, not only with regards to laptops and the internet but also with access to physical tools that one might find in an electronics lab or a university machine shop. In some situations, students may be able to model and outsource parts, however, that will not replace the experience of learning how to use these manufacturing machines in person. In order to combat this gap of knowledge, Weldon’s project sets out to design, manufacture, and assemble a moderately low cost, desktop machine that can both 3D print and CNC (computer numerical control) mill small parts. The design will hopefully be able to be recreated by engineering students, or anyone with a passion for making, to supplement lost educational experiences and provide them with the tools to create and innovate in their daily lives.

Piano Palette

Edward Hwang, Woojin Ko, Josh Mao, Ellen Nguyen, and Clarissa Wu, with collaborators John Ma and Umang Srivastav

With the advent of technology like Augmented Reality (AR) that allows us to overlay another dimension on top of the world we live in, the team behind Piano Palette will explore the possibility of using this emerging discipline in order to make music more accessible and more enjoyable for people of all musical backgrounds. Piano Palette will integrate real-time Chromesthesia within piano music visualization; the project will incorporate AR research, design visualization, and app development.


Lizzette Corrales, Claudia Renero, X Sun, and Lulu Zhang

B-Charge strives to invent a product that can allow people to use clean energy to charge their phones during their commute while accessing their phones for various purposes, such as GPS and flashlight. B-Charge was designed with the 47.5 million bikers in America in mind, as well as for 800 million bikers around the world. The team plans to build a product that can generate electricity from the rear wheel of bikes using dynamo, which connects to a rectifier and voltage regulator to convert produced electricity into 5 volts direct currents. The device will connect cables to a USB adaptor and phone holder, placed on the handlebar, with the electronics protected by a housing device for the frame. The B-Charge team came together with the goal of using advanced technologies to better the world and tackle this everyday issue with environmental impacts.